Friday, July 08, 2005

History Lesson

No country's recent history can match Cambodia's for sadness and misery and because I feel it's important that we understand and appreciate the past so that we can better understand the present, today's post is going to be a bit of a brief history lesson.

The easygoing Khmer people have been unscrupulously taken advantage of over the past 40 years by all comers, from their own, self-serving leaders to their neighbours and the world's major powers. The small nation could not maintain its neutrality in the face of substantial pressure from the Vietnamese and the Americans during their conflict, being used as a garrison base by one and a bombing range by the other (it is estimated that American carpet bombing killed several hundred thousand Cambodian civilians). When the belligerent powers finally left her alone in late 1973 Cambodia was too weak to resist the Chinese-backed Khmers Rouges headed by Pol Pot.

The Khmers Rouges ruled for only 4 years, but their stamp on the nation will never be fully erased. Pol Pot's murderous regime that killed 2 million of its own people puts him on a par with the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Actually, he far surpasses both of them, having managed to kill fully one quarter of Cambodia's population. What's particularly callous about this genocide is that the killings, in Pol Pot's drive to create a completely agrarian society, particularly targeted the intelligentsia and the educated elite: its artists, its teachers, its lawyers, its bureaucrats, its doctors, its musicians and pretty much anybody who could read and write. Much of Cambodia's cultural richness permanently died with them. During these 4 hellish years the Cambodian people were evicted from their homes and sent to farming communes. Families were split apart and made subservient to the collective. Any disobedience, be it unauthorised communications, the humming of a tune, or even catching an insect and eating it to supplement a meagre diet, was often punishable by death. In so doing the regime took away the people of Cambodia's humanity and turned them into menial beasts. The deaths were often horrible, protracted affairs that would often be preceded by detentions in grisly torture prisons, like the notorious S-21 in Phnom Penh. A visit to the prison is a truly sobering experience. Of the 20,000 internees only 7 survived. In the memorial museum at S-21 there are rooms full of headshots staring at you as you walk past. One of the most haunting is of a person who perhaps deserved to be there more than most: Hou Nim was a Khmer Rouge cadre and minister for culture (though god knows what that job entailed) who was sent to S-21 after one of many internal purges. In his picture his expression is one of knowing resignation, aware of the fate that awaits him. From S-21 the people were driven, blindfolded, to the outskirts of the city, made to kneel down, and bludgeoned to death. They were left where they lay, in festering pits, the notorious Killing Fields where, to this day, one can still see shards of human bones lying around. Such set-ups were spread throughout the land. Little is known as to the motivation behind such brutality, but as with all dictatorships the rulers were abject hypocrites. The ruling Khmers Rouges clique was part of the educated elite that it strove to annihilate, most of them having won scholarships to study in France, becoming teachers upon their return (I always knew there was something strange about teachers).

As well as espousing an extreme form of communism the Khmers Rouges were also rabidly nationalistic and tapped into the huge well of anti-Vietnamese hostility that makes up the Khmer psyche (after the downfall of the Khmer empire their power continually diminished due to incessant pressure from both Vietnam and Siam, though it's the former that has earned top spot in Cambodians' love to hate category). This proved to be their downfall as the Vietnamese, with their vastly superior military, retaliated by ousting the Khmers Rouges and replacing them with a more favourable, and altogether less brutal (comparatively), communist regime.

This should have been, at least partially, applauded by the international community. Instead the Americans and other western countries decried this breach of supposed national sovereignty and, along with their unlikely bedfellows the Chinese, started to rearm the Khmers Rouges (personally I think it was sour grapes on the part of the Americans who were still bitter at having lost to the Vietnamese, as national sovereignty has never stopped the Americans from doing exactly as they pleased). This led to a protracted civil war, which only ended when Vietnam lost their main sponsors with the fall of communism in Europe. So the UN was called in to sort out the stalemate. However they failed miserably in bringing about law and order and a sense of stability to the shattered country and instead busied themselves with setting up and holding elections. These were duly held and the Vietnamese communists were voted out in quite an emphatic fashion. The UN patted itself on the back on a job well done and promptly left; meanwhile the communists, who controlled the military, refused to cede power and insisted on being in the government. Once there, they proceeded to remove the rightfully elected party from power, and to this day its stranglehold on the country is as strong as ever, despite farcical elections.

In the meantime those in power have been stripping the country of its most valuable assets, selling them off to either Vietnam or the Thai army (who, incidentally, were one of the biggest backers of the Khmers Rouges) whilst pocketing hefty backhanders. Perhaps even worse is the fact that none of the Khmers Rouges leaders have been brought to justice, instead they hold positions of power (Hun Sen, the present day prime minister defected from the Khmers Rouges in 1977) or have been left to wander free. Brothers number 2 and 3 i.e. the second and third in command of the Khmers Rouges, both live in grandiose villas in the western town of Pailin. In fact I was even offered a tour by a moto driver to go and see their houses and perhaps ogle these mass-murderers living free, but the thought of it disgusted me. Pol Pot himself never faced a proper trial and died under mysterious circumstances under house arrest.

Sorry if this post is a little on the long side (I tried to be as concise as possible whilst retaining everything I thought important) but there are two reasons for this. First of all it shows one of my main impulses for travelling. I'm intensely curious of the state of affairs in the world around me and how they came to be. It is only by knowing the history that one can understand the present, and unfortunately nowadays too few people care about the underlying causes of the problems that affect our world today. And secondly after reading about and learning Cambodia's distressing history I believe it is one that we should all know. The Cambodian people have been mercilessly preyed upon by pretty much the whole world. Their history shows that no matter how much lip service is given to democracy and human rights, politicians never act altruistically and that if nothing is done to stop it the strong will always steamroller the weak. And that is something we must strive to change.

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